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Picasso, 1881 – 1973
There is a museum in Barcelona of Picasso’s work. When he was only ten years he was painting small neighborhood scenes – a view of a road on a hill, some chickens… He was already doing several paintings a day, a pattern he maintained most of the rest of his 93 years.
The paintings were amazingly competent. Picasso’s father, it is said, a teacher and painter, gave up painting when he saw that his young son had already surpassed his talent.
At the turn of the century, 19 year old Pablo arrived in Paris, capital of the art world. This was a time when Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and the impressionists were finally being recognized, in advanced circles, as important artists. Picasso quickly tried all the styles and by 1905 had evolved into what is called his blue period – melancholy paintings in cool blues, prompted probably by a friend’s suicide and his extreme poverty.
His palette gradually lightened into gay pastels, his rose period. The poverty was not to last. A wealthy North American writer, Gertrude Stein, took him under her wing (as she later did Hemingway). She purchased many of his paintings and promoted him to others.
Picasso was to become the richest and most widely known artist of all time but his early career was marked by great shifts that confused and alienated many of his supporters. By 1930 he had more or less settled into a style. He had another 43 years to live and work.
In 1906 he did a large panting that shocked even his radical friends. It depicted several standing women in a strange flattened style. The faces were grotesque and mask-like. The artist had seen an exhibit of Pacific Island sculpture and found in it a powerful source for his art. He kept this painting, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, out of sight, continuing to paint his scenes of circus and theater people. But even into these began to appear the new influence.
The painter Paul Cezanne, who died in 1906, had evolved a style of painting that heavily influenced Picasso. Cezanne would color his pictures without slavish regard to the objects being depicted. An apple might be red, then again it might be blue. Another more important aspect of his work was the fact that he would move his easel from time to time while working on the same painting. This created distortion and flattening of perspective which Picasso took much further.
He began to simplify and flatten, so that the paintings came to look like a view through a shattered window. His friends Braque and Juan Gris joined him in this series, creating what came to be called Cubism.
At first Cubism was loose, groping and awkward. Later it became very refined and later still it evolved into a flat play of colored shapes which still referred to things in the world (a guitar, a portrait, still life) but were so abstract that the colors and shapes could be enjoyed just for themselves.
Interspersed throughout Picasso’s career was another style. It ranged from a very fine descriptive, linear drawing (portraits, figures on the beach) to cartoonish and playful scenes of dancers, frolicking families and circus troupes. Sometimes the two styles came together in the same painting. Picasso’s subject and approach was extremely broad as were his ventures beyond painting into pottery, printmaking and sculpture.
Picasso will be remembered for his immense output – thousands of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery, and for his unique touch. He had many imitators, and in the beginning he imitated and learned from other artists but his style became unmistakably his own. His mark on history, what remains of it, is assured.
- Author's Note: This ARTicle was first published in the Dublin Courier Herald in a slightly different form in 1989 (illustration by the author).